Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Look up!!!


1st night of summer to feature convergence of astronomical trio

The June solstice marks the official start to summer, but wildfire smoke could hinder views of an upcoming astronomy event, and potentially more astronomical happenings through the summer.

The Stonehenge monument in England is seen, early Monday, June 21, 2010. Thousands of New Agers and neo-pagans danced and whooped in delight Monday as a bright early morning sun rose above the ancient stone circle Stonehenge, marking the summer solstice. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The upcoming week will bring the shortest nights of the entire year across the United States, but there will still be plenty to look for in the night sky including a planetary duo glowing next to the moon.

Astronomical summer will officially kick off on Wednesday with the solstice, which will occur at 10:57 a.m. EDT, the latest start to summer since 2019. This comes three weeks after the start of meteorological summer, which began on Thursday, June 1.

On the June solstice, the sun's most direct rays will be focused on the Tropic of Cancer resulting in the longest day of the year for areas north of the equator. In areas north of the Arctic Circle, the sun never sets on the solstice with constant daylight around the clock.

The longest day of the year will be followed by the shortest night of the year, but the brevity of the night shouldn't deter stargazers from spending some time outdoors after nightfall as an easy-to-see astronomical event will unfold in the sky.

Venus, Mars and the crescent moon

About an hour after sunset on Wednesday evening, the crescent moon, Venus and Mars will glow together in the western sky. This gathering will be similar to one that unfolded in May that featured the same three celestial objects, but this month, Venus and Mars will appear closer to each other.

Venus will be the brightest of the two planets, with Mars glowing dimly above and to the left of it. The crescent moon will be hanging in the sky to the right of the planetary duo.

Onlookers may also be able to see a phenomenon called Earthshine, also known as the Da Vinci glow.

Earthshine is commonly seen during a crescent moon shortly after sunset or shortly before sunrise when sunlight reflecting off the Earth faintly illuminates the Earth-facing side of the moon. The effect can make for awe-inspiring photographs, especially on Wednesday night with two planets nearby.

How wildfire smoke can affect stargazing

Plumes of smoke spewing from wildfires across Canada have filled the sky over the contiguous United States in recent weeks, resulting in unhealthy air quality and hazy conditions hundreds and even thousands of miles away from the blazes.

With the Canadian wildfire season off to an unprecedented start and wildfire season in the U.S. still months away from its predicted peak, it is likely that smoke will make more frequent appearances in the sky this summer compared to previous years.

A satellite image of the United States Thursday morning. Wildfire smoke could be seen over the Plains, Midwest and part of the mid-Atlantic. (NOAA/GOES-EAST)

High-altitude smoke, like what was seen over the Midwest and Northeast on Thursday, June 15, can have some effect on air quality near the ground, but for stargazers, it can have significant implications.

A thin layer of wildfire smoke can make it difficult to see many of the dimmer stars, constellations and planets. Thicker smoke can block out views of the night sky entirely, making it virtually impossible to witness events such as the gathering of Venus, Mars and the moon on Wednesday night.

In addition to the shorter nights during the weeks surrounding the solstice, an uptick in moisture in the atmosphere during the summer months can make the sky appear slightly fuzzy. The increase in humidity is why stars do not appear to twinkle as much in the summer compared to the clear and cold nights of winter.

If wildfire smoke continues to spread across the sky throughout the summer, it could potentially block out views of several major astronomy events, including the highly-anticipated Perseid meteor shower on the night of Saturday, Aug. 12, into the early morning of Sunday, Aug. 13.


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